provence

The Doors of Provence

A pictorial journey through les portes de Provence, accompanied by quotes about doors.

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During the week we spent based in Aix-en-Provence, France, we practically overdosed on adorable. I mean, those people are doing something right. The towns are quaint and filled with markets. You’ll pass through small squares with fountains in the middle.

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And then there are the doors. We couldn’t help but snap photos on every street we strolled along. Many of the doors are surprisingly narrow. Many have intricate stone archways with faces guarding the entrance. Many sported intricately carved panels. Some opened in the middle, like giant shutters. A few had somewhat intimidating knockers. And most were of a deep brown wood, though now and then you’d see one painted a blue as bright as the Provençal sky.

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Here are our favorite doors from Aix and its environs, paired with quotes about this architectural detail that never fails to captivate. Step right in. –Wally

There are so many doors to open. I am impatient to begin.
–Daniel Keyes, “Flowers for Algernon”
Doors are funny things.
Some lead to somewhere exciting and wonderful, while others lead to the mundane and ordinary. Some, because they are gaudy and ornate, usher us into the land of greed and money. But many look unassuming and plain, yet hidden behind their simplicity one can find love; warmth; a cozy fire; a home cooked meal and a beautiful family.
It’s these doors I search for in life and it’s these doors that I shall find.
–Anthony T. Hincks
I feel very adventurous. There are so many doors to be opened, and I’m not afraid to look behind them.
–Elizabeth Taylor
Windows open out onto the universe around you, but doors will take you to where your imagination lies.
–Anthony T. Hincks
If you feel you have to open a particular door, open it, otherwise all your life that door will haunt your mind!
–Mehmet Murat İldan
A smile will open more doors than what a frown will.
–Anthony T.Hincks
If God had to build a door, it’s because we erected a wall.
–Craig D. Lounsbrough

Discover the Charms of La Ciotat

A little-known port in the South of France, where you can hike up to Parc du Mugel botanic gardens and see the Eden Théâtre, where the Lumière Brothers screened the first moving picture.

An on-the-fly decision brought us to La Ciotat, France

An on-the-fly decision brought us to La Ciotat, France

The plan was to take a day trip to Aubagne in the South of France. But because of the all-too-common and unpredictable rail strike, we were unable to take the train. So Wally, his parents and I decided we’d try out the bus. We bought tickets and boarded the 72 bus from Aix.

The picturesque port of La Ciotat

The picturesque port of La Ciotat

During the ride, Wally struck up a conversation with an adorable young woman with large expressive eyes and chestnut-colored hair tousled in a loose braid. She asked us in French where we were going, and when she heard that our plan was to hit Aubagne, she instead suggested La Ciotat, saying, “It’s super!” pronouncing the word “soo-pair.”

It was here that Auguste and Louis Lumière screened their movie, ‘Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station,’ which sent some viewers running from their seats in terror.
Many of the buildings of Provence are pastel-colored, with shuttered windows

Many of the buildings of Provence are pastel-colored, with shuttered windows

We decided to follow her advice; after all, she knows the region better than we did. And so we got off the bus early, to explore La Ciotat.

Duke on the beach at La Ciotat

Duke on the beach at La Ciotat

The charming seaside town was the birthplace of cinema and the setting for many of the pioneering Lumière brothers’ first moving pictures. The quaint old port is now filled with luxury yachts and fishing boats bobbing upon the gentle waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

Yachts, sailboats and seagulls in a postcard-perfect setting

Yachts, sailboats and seagulls in a postcard-perfect setting

A delightful place to spend an afternoon

A delightful place to spend an afternoon

Fishing boats line the harbor at La Ciotat

Fishing boats line the harbor at La Ciotat

Apparently the town also holds a yearly festival in October to celebrate its miraculous immunity from the Great Plague of 1720. Nearby Marseille did not fare so well and lost about 50% of its population! Historians believe that the ancient fortified stone walls surrounding the hamlet acted as a barrier to the wave of destruction caused by the bubonic plague, helping the townsfolk of La Ciotat to avoid a terrible fate.

Église Notre-Dame de l'Assomption

Église Notre-Dame de l'Assomption

Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption

Once you arrive in La Ciotat, you have a choice of adventures. If you make your way from the port like we did, you’ll pass the town’s largest church, Our Lady of the Assumption, with its single belltower. Built at the start of the 17th century, it has a restrained Romanesque style façade. Pale rose-colored limestone used to construct the church came from the ancient quarries of La Couronne.

Unfortunately, we were unable to see inside, as the doors were locked.

Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption
25 Rue Adolphe Abeille

Eden Théâtre, where the first movie was screened

Eden Théâtre, where the first movie was screened

Eden Théâtre

Built in 1889 and facing the Mediterranean seafront, the landmark Eden Théâtre, with its butter-yellow façade, is the world’s oldest surviving public movie theater in operation.

It was here that Auguste and Louis Lumière screened their black-and-white silent movie, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, which shows a steam train pulling into a station. The scene certainly made quite an impression, sending some viewers running from their seats in terror as the image of an oncoming train hurtled towards them.

Eden Théâtre
25 Boulevard Georges Clémenceau

The gorgeous blue waters of the Mediterranean

The gorgeous blue waters of the Mediterranean

The botanic garden of Parc du Mugel is worth the hike uphill

The botanic garden of Parc du Mugel is worth the hike uphill

Parc du Mugel

Wally and I decided to check out the botanic garden of Parc du Mugel, while Shirley and Dave explored the small cobblestone-lined streets. The park is quite a hike but ended up being a highlight of our trip.

Since we weren’t completely sure where we were going, we stopped in at Au Poivre d’Ane, a bookstore, to ask directions to the park. A white cat named Dickens slept in the front window. The shopkeeper told us to follow the Avenue des Calanques until we reached the iron gates at the end and becomes Avenue du Mugel.

As we walked up the gradual incline of the road, we passed derelict port buildings covered in graffiti. A fine wire mesh, presumably to prevent erosion, covers the lower half of the cliffs like a hairnet keeping errant stones and soil in place.

When we reached the top, we were rewarded with the natural splendor of Parc du Mugel.

Graffiti decorates the walls along the thin slivers of rocky beaches

Graffiti decorates the walls along the thin slivers of rocky beaches

The Park’s History

In 1923, the land was purchased by Marseille coal merchant Louis Fouquet. A man of considerable wealth, Fouquet created a great arboretum, planting plane trees, cork oaks, chestnut trees, bamboos, mimosas and bougainvilleas.

The town eventually bought back the entire property, and in 1982, the nature preserve was opened to the public.

Wally went in the water. It was cold

Wally went in the water. It was cold

Located at the foot of a massive calanque, or seaside cliff, the 270-foot-high Bec de l’Aigle, Eagle’s Beak, shelters the site from the mistral, the powerful, cold dry wind that blows through the Rhône Valley to the Mediterranean coast. The Bec is composed of a conglomerate called poudingue or puddingstone. The “pudding” is made up of a fine-grained sediment composed of silt and limestone, flecked with small round pebbles the color of pomegranate seeds.

Elderly sunbathers with dark, leathery skin are a common sight in the South of France

Elderly sunbathers with dark, leathery skin are a common sight in the South of France

Wally and I followed a steep but shaded trail filled with chestnut trees, Aleppo pines and laurels before reaching the belvedere, a fancy name for a lookout point, to enjoy the panoramic view of the sun-dappled Mediterranean Sea. It was worth the effort.

Fishermen try to catch their dinner on the shores of La Ciotat

Fishermen try to catch their dinner on the shores of La Ciotat

The park has an impluvium irrigation system, which collects rainwater runoff for water-thirsty plants, and calades, retaining walls hidden by the lush greenery that act as ribs along the slope to hold back the earth in certain areas.

These lovingly arranged gardens contain wildflowers, cactuses, roses, aromatic and medicinal plants as well as a citrus fruit orchard.

Parc du Mugel
Calanque du Mugel

A pleasant stroll around the port 

A pleasant stroll around the port 

If you’re in the Aix or Marseille area and want to take an off-the-beaten path, follow our bus acquantaince’s advice and visit La Ciotat. The charming town, with its beautiful landscape and historic theater, deserves a visit for a few hours. –Duke

Windows with laundry hanging outside are another common sight in Provence

Windows with laundry hanging outside are another common sight in Provence

A Tour of the Cathédrale Saint Sauveur

Looking for things to do in Aix-en-Provence? Travel through time at this historic church.

The Cathédral Saint Sauveur is one of the highlights of Aix-en-Provence, France

The Cathédral Saint Sauveur is one of the highlights of Aix-en-Provence, France

Cathédrale Saint Sauveur
34 Place des Martyrs-de-la-Résistance
13100 Aix-en-Provence, France

Looking through the Gothic nave into what’s known as the choir

Looking through the Gothic nave into what’s known as the choir

Tucked amongst the pastel-colored 17th century mansions and narrow streets of the charming vielle ville, or old town, of Aix-en-Provence, France lies one of its oldest and most interesting monuments, the Cathédrale Saint Sauveur. (Try pronouncing it something like, “Seh So-Vurr.) Rising majestically, it occupies the site where the ancient forum of Roman Aquae Sextiae once stood.

During the French Revolution, the statues of the kings of France were decapitated.
Good things come to those who wait: Construction of Saint Sauveur began in the 5th century and went on into the 19th century

Good things come to those who wait: Construction of Saint Sauveur began in the 5th century and went on into the 19th century

A Brief History of Saint Sauveur

Located at a point along what was the Via Aurelia, the principal highway from the Iberian Peninsula to Asia Minor during the dominition of the Roman Empire, the Cathédrale Saint Sauveur evolved in fits and starts, beginning in the 5th century. Delays between the laying of its foundation and its completion due to wars, la peste (bubonic plague) and lack of financing bear witness to the amalgam of ecclesiastical architectural styles that make up the religious landmark.

Did Jesus really knock up Mary Magdalene, who gave birth to their kid…in the South of France?!

Did Jesus really knock up Mary Magdalene, who gave birth to their kid…in the South of France?!

Saint Maximinus and Mary Magdalene’s Voyage

According to Christian tradition, Saint Maximinus arrived in Provence from Bethany, a village near Jerusalem, accompanied by Mary Magdalene on a rudderless boat belonging to her brother, Lazarus. It was expected that they would perish at sea — however, the voyage brought them to the southern coast of France, landing in the city of Marseilles, where they achieved success in converting the French people to Christianity. In fact, Maximinus became the first Archbishop of Aix. He built a modest chapel here and dedicated it to Saint Sauveur, Christ the Savior.

There’s a popular theory (written about in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code) that says Mary Magdalene was pregnant at the time of her journey — with the baby daddy being none other than Christ himself! The descendants of that child eventually married into the French royal family and started the Merovingian dynasty.

ANOTHER “DA VINCI CODE” CONNECTION: Saint-Sulpice and the Mystery of the Rose Line

Construction of Saint Sauveur began in the 5th century with the baptistery

Construction of Saint Sauveur began in the 5th century with the baptistery

The Baptistery Rotunda

The oldest part of Saint Sauveur is the baptistery, which was built at the beginning of the 5th century and predates the current cathedral by almost 700 years. As the town grew, the cathedral was renovated in the 16th century in the Romanesque style, evidence of the growing economic clout of the Catholic diocese.

This is the area off to the right when you enter the cathedral, and indeed, it has an ancient feel to it.

This area of Saint Sauveur is thought to have been built atop a temple to Apollo

This area of Saint Sauveur is thought to have been built atop a temple to Apollo

Allegedly, French historian Jean Scholastique Pitton uncovered an artifact, the orphaned leg of a statue, while excavating the site. He presumed this to belong to the sun god Apollo, and this became the origin of the Provençal myth that the church was built atop a pagan Roman temple dedicated to Apollo.

The eight sides of the baptismal font represent regeneration — you’ll see octagons all over this part of the church

The eight sides of the baptismal font represent regeneration — you’ll see octagons all over this part of the church

Eight slender columns of granite and green marble with Corinthian capitals surround the octagonal Merovingian baptismal basin. It was fed by the warm waters coming from the Roman baths. Its eight sides are a symbolic number of regeneration.

As the cathedral was enlarged over the centuries, it became a mishmash of three main architectural styles 

As the cathedral was enlarged over the centuries, it became a mishmash of three main architectural styles 

A Tale of Three Naves

The cathedral consists of three naves, compositionally connected to one another but nevertheless clearly distinguishable. The north is in the Baroque style, the south Romanesque, which served as the main nave prior to the construction of the central Gothic nave.

 

Romanesque Nave

At the beginning of the 12th century, the principal nave was constructed next to the baptistery in the Romanesque style and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The front of the nave was demolished during the 15th century and replaced with a new Gothic façade and bell tower.

The cloister, just beyond the baptistery and accessed through the Romanesque nave, was built next to the cathedral between the late 12th century and the beginning of the 13th century. It was reduced in size in the early 18th century to expand the west corridor. At the corners, pillars are decorated with bas-reliefs depicting the four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

 

Gothic Nave

About 200 years later, further expansion occurred, and a second massive Gothic nave and apse were added. The wings of the transept were begun in 1285 and completed in 1316. Bay by bay, the Romanesque church was embellished and transformed in the Gothic style. This is the area you’ll see first if you walk straight into the cathedral.

There’s a real organ — and a fake one added for the sake of symmetry

There’s a real organ — and a fake one added for the sake of symmetry

Baroque Nave

Just to the left of the Gothic nave as you enter the church, you’ll come to the small Baroque nave. To either side are green and gold organ cases in the Louis XV style, built by Jean-Esprit Isnard. The instrumental part by De Ducroquet dates from 1855. Both are listed historical monuments. An identical but false organ chest was built on the opposite side — just for the sake of symmetry.

Three saints can be found in the Baroque nave, including Marguerite of Antioch, off to the right, with an unusual-looking dragon

Three saints can be found in the Baroque nave, including Marguerite of Antioch, off to the right, with an unusual-looking dragon

A fascinating stone altarpiece commissioned by the Aygosi family, originally installed in the church of the Carmelites in Aix, can be seen in the Baroque aisle. Carved from stone by Audinet Stephani and installed in 1823, it depicts a variety of saints: Marcel, Anne with the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus and Marguerite of Antioch emerging from the shoulders of a dragon who had swallowed her whole.

Stained glass saints in Saint Sauveur

Stained glass saints in Saint Sauveur

Apse and Artwork

The cathedral underwent extensive renovation in the 19th century. The nave was redecorated with painted and sculpted neo-Gothic elements added between 1857 and 1862.

In the Gothic nave, you’ll find a modern cathedra, a throne for the bishop. We think it looks more like something he’d take a dump on

In the Gothic nave, you’ll find a modern cathedra, a throne for the bishop. We think it looks more like something he’d take a dump on

The choir gallery of the Gothic nave contains the high altar with a pair of carved giltwood angels, a modern sculptural cathedra, or bishop’s throne, which looks a bit like a gray tankless toilet backed by three wavy, glittering bronze panels symbolic of the Holy Trinity. Nineteenth century stained glass windows feature the coats of arms of high-ranking church clergy.

Check to see if the  Triptych of the Burning Bush , by Nicolas Froment, will be on display when you visit

Check to see if the Triptych of the Burning Bush, by Nicolas Froment, will be on display when you visit

The cathedral’s most famous work is the Triptych of the Burning Bush by Nicolas Froment. Commissioned by King René for his funerary chapel in the church of Les Grands-Carmes, it is considered one of the most beautiful 15th century paintings in Europe. Painted in 1475 and 1476, it has resided in the Cathédrale Saint Sauveur since the 19th century. Due to its fragility, they only open the case on specific days; sadly, ours was not one of those days.

Look for the Roman prophetesses lining the arch of the main entrance, among other sculptures

Look for the Roman prophetesses lining the arch of the main entrance, among other sculptures

Western Façade

With the completion of the nave, attention was drawn to the western façade, which was demolished and replaced in the Gothic style. Figures representing the Apostles flank the cathedral doors. Above the portal are the figures of 12 sibyls, pagan fortune tellers from antiquity, surrounded by foliage, fruit and flowers.

Holy Savior! They built a church for you!

Holy Savior! They built a church for you!

During the French Revolution, the statues on the façade, believed to depict the kings of France, were decapitated, and the heads were lost. The current ones are replicas.

Careful, Saint Michael! I know you’re busy killing the Devil, but we don’t want you falling off the roof!

Careful, Saint Michael! I know you’re busy killing the Devil, but we don’t want you falling off the roof!

The centerpiece of the façade is a statue of the Archangel Saint Michael vanquishing Satan with a cross, made in 1507 by sculptor Jean Paumier.

 

If you’re in Aix-en-Provence, pull yourself away from the delightful open-air markets to spend an hour or so exploring the choose-your-own-architectural-adventure of the Cathédral Saint Sauveur. It’s a bit like traveling through time, as you make your way from the ancient baptistery to the modern bishop’s throne. –Duke

La Cigale: Why the Cicada Became the Symbol of Provence

A Jean de la Fontaine fable helped the noisome cicada bug burrow its way into Provençal hearts.

The noisy (and let’s face it, rather ugly) bug the cicada became the chosen motif to represent the French region of Provence

The noisy (and let’s face it, rather ugly) bug the cicada became the chosen motif to represent the French region of Provence

Aix-en-Provence, France has all the trappings of a charming Provençal town, in particular its farmers markets filled with fresh produce, assorted cheeses, lavender sachets and freshly cut sunflowers. What we didn’t expect to find depicted everywhere was cicadas. There were brightly glazed ceramic ones, table linens with their likeness and pastel-colored cicada-shaped soaps. You can imagine our surprise and delight, when Wally and I learned that the people of Provence chose cicadas (which I call “ree-ree bugs” because of the sound they make) as their honorary symbol. We had to discover how this came about.

When summer arrives in Provence, cicadas, or cigales as they are referred to in French, dramatically announce their return, filling the air with their distinctive melody.

According to Provençal folklore, the cicada was sent by God to rouse peasants from their afternoon siestas to prevent them from becoming too lazy.

The plan backfired.

Cicadas have been featured in literature since ancient times. Greek poets were compelled to write odes to them. To them, cicadas symbolized death and rebirth, due to the bugs’ mysterious life cycle. Cicadas spend their nymph stage underground, and classical poets likely observed species that buried themselves for two to five years before emerging from the earth.

Only the male cicada “sings,” prompting the Ancient Greek poet Xenophon to quip: “Blessed are the cicadas, for they have voiceless wives.”

Only the male cicada “sings,” prompting the Ancient Greek poet Xenophon to quip: “Blessed are the cicadas, for they have voiceless wives.”

When the air reaches the right temperature — 77ºF — masses of male cicadas will stridently whine or serenade female cicadas; the females do not sing. For those more poetically inclined, each sings in unison by rapidly vibrating their tymbal, a thin membrane with thickened ribs located on each side of its abdomen. Because the abdomen is mostly hollow, it acts as a resonance chamber that amplifies the sound and broadcasts up to mile away. The din is the loudest of all insect-produced sounds.

In  Phaedrus , Plato muses that cicadas were once men who became so enraptured by music, they forgot to eat and drink, and their bodies wasted away

In Phaedrus, Plato muses that cicadas were once men who became so enraptured by music, they forgot to eat and drink, and their bodies wasted away

According to Provençal folklore, the cicada was sent by God to rouse peasants from their afternoon siestas on hot summer days and prevent them from becoming too lazy. The plan backfired: Instead of being disturbed by the cicada, the peasants found the sound of their buzzing relaxing, which in turn lulled them to sleep.

There is a Provençal expression: Il ne fait pas bon de travailler quand la cigale chante, or “It’s not good to work when the cicada is singing.”

Jean de la Fontaine’s story “The Cicada and the Ant” is based on one of Aesop’s famous fables

Jean de la Fontaine’s story “The Cicada and the Ant” is based on one of Aesop’s famous fables

Jean de la Fontaine wrote the fable “La Cigale et la Fourmi” (“The Cicada and the Ant”) in 1668, an interpretation inspired by Aesop’s “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” In the story, the cicada passes the glorious days of summer consumed in song, while the industrious ant forages and stores food for the winter to come.

The ant works industriously all summer long, while the cicada lazes about singing. Guess who’s caught off-guard when winter arrives?

The ant works industriously all summer long, while the cicada lazes about singing. Guess who’s caught off-guard when winter arrives?

In 1854, together with six other local writers, Frédéric Mistral formed the Félibrige, a literary society to preserve the Provençal language and customs of Southern France. He coined the phrase, “Lou soulei mi fa canta,” Provençal for “the sun makes me sing,” usually accompanied by an illustration of a cicada.

A ceramicist from the Aubagne town of Provence, Louis Sicard, was asked by a wealthy tile manufacturer in 1895 to come up with a small keepsake gift symbolizing Provence for the man to give to his business clients. Inspired by the poets of the Félibrige, Sicard designed and created a paperweight with a cicada sitting on an olive branch bearing Mistral's epigram “Lou soulei mi fa canta,” earning himself the nickname “the Father of the Cicadas.”

If you startle a cicada, it might emit a spray of piss, prompting Provençal peasants of the past to thread the insects on a string, hang them up to dry and then boil their bodies into a tisane to cure urinary tract ailments

If you startle a cicada, it might emit a spray of piss, prompting Provençal peasants of the past to thread the insects on a string, hang them up to dry and then boil their bodies into a tisane to cure urinary tract ailments

The people of Provence adopted the noisy critters as their mascot, and the motif made its way into everything from regional fabrics to pottery displayed proudly outside Provençal homes. Like horseshoes or four leaf clovers, they’re regarded as good luck charms, and seem to burrow their way into many a tourist’s suitcase. In fact, we purchased a wrought-iron cicada trivet at the Isle-sur-la-Sorgue market and a bunch of perfumed ceramic cicadas at the Aix tourist center as souvenirs and gifts. –Duke

Where to Eat and Shop in Cassis

Spend a charming day wandering this pretty Provence port — and pick up a bottle of crème de cassis and marc while you’re at it.

Book a tour of the calanques, then spend the afternoon in lovely Cassis

Book a tour of the calanques, then spend the afternoon in lovely Cassis

Built on a hillside, the 17-century medieval town of Cassis, in the South of France, is clustered around a harbor shaped like a crescent (or, one might say croissant). Many of the buildings have beautifully weathered shutters and the town’s warren of charming narrow streets are lined with cafés, restaurants, shops and residences easily accessible by foot, or à pied as the French say.

The lighthouse marks the entrance to the Port of Cassis — one of the best-kept secrets in the South of France

The lighthouse marks the entrance to the Port of Cassis — one of the best-kept secrets in the South of France

C’est la vie, as they say — life follows a different schedule in Provence and even more so in a seaside town.
With such a picturesque port and beautiful weather, you’ll want to dine al fresco

With such a picturesque port and beautiful weather, you’ll want to dine al fresco

Time for Lunch

After our afternoon excursion on the Mediterranean touring the white cliffsides known as calanques, the Shirl, Dave, Wally and I had worked up an appetite and decided to have lunch on the seaside terrace of the Marco Polo Restaurant.

Watch the boats come and go in the harbor as you wander this adorable ville

Watch the boats come and go in the harbor as you wander this adorable ville

What appeared to be a regular diner was enjoying his meal near the entrance to the restaurant. When he finished, he lit a cigar. A waitress drizzled water across his lap and told him to put it out. When he refused, she threatened to pour a full glass over his head — and he finally acquiesced.
Each of us ordered the Marco Polo salad. The mixed greens included shredded chicken, Granny Smith apple slices, Belgian endives, cherry tomatoes, kernels of corn and a light mustard dressing. We all enjoyed them — a nice light break from all the fromage and cured saucissons.

Food, drink and shopping in a pretty Provençal port town

Food, drink and shopping in a pretty Provençal port town

Wally and I also ordered Kir Royales, champagne with the addition of the syrupy blackcurrant apéritif liqueur crème de cassis.

As an interesting aside, the Provençal region is known for rosé and Sauvignon Blanc — not crème de cassis, which is a specialty of the Burgundy region.

 

Le Marco Polo
4, place Mirabeau


This chien has the right idea — Cassis has a laidback vibe

This chien has the right idea — Cassis has a laidback vibe

Time to Shop

Should you decide to wander the streets of Cassis after lunch (and you really should), there are plenty of shops and boutiques to whet your appetite, offering local wares — but you may find many of them closed. Shops close up to three hours for lunch between 12 to 3 p.m.

The streets are narrow, rounded and lined with brightly colored buildings — some of which are striped!

The streets are narrow, rounded and lined with brightly colored buildings — some of which are striped!

One shop in particular that piqued our interest, the Cassis-Provence shop, allegedly resumed business at 2 p.m., but didn’t unlock its doors until 2:45 p.m. (We know cuz we kept checking back, we were so eager to get inside.) C’est la vie, as they say — life follows a different schedule in Provence and even more so in a seaside town.

Climbing flowers and bright colors are at the heart of Cassis’ appeal

Climbing flowers and bright colors are at the heart of Cassis’ appeal

The shop proprietor was wearing a voluminous pink cotton candy cloud of a dress which made her look like doll, earning her Wally’s fitting nickname Madame Poupée.

A Cassis courtyard

A Cassis courtyard

We purchased the following from this well-stocked shop, which featured wines, aperitifs and olive oil:

Wally’s mère became obsessed with this blue door — it represented everything she loves about Provence

Wally’s mère became obsessed with this blue door — it represented everything she loves about Provence

  • Margier extra virgin olive oil
  • Garlaban marc (a digestif Mme Poupée told us is a local specialty and drunk after every meal)
  • Crème de cassis
  • Château de Fontcreuse rosé
  • La Cagole (une bière blanche, or white beer, which Wally and I realized is our favorite type of beer)

Cassis Provence
9, rue Brémond


It’s tough to take a bad picture of the narrow rainbow-hued shops and apartments with boats out front

It’s tough to take a bad picture of the narrow rainbow-hued shops and apartments with boats out front

Cassis remains a friendly, unspoiled spot on the Mediterranean coast, where you can easily spend a relaxing sun-soaked afternoon enjoying the picturesque landscape and tasty food in an enchanting Provençal village. –Duke

The Gorgeous Calanques of Cassis

Calanque Port-Miou, Calanque Port-Pin and Calanque d’En-Vau: The French Riviera limestone cliffs provide a picturesque day trip if you’re in Provence.

The Port of Cassis on the French Riviera, with its pretty backdrop of the limestone cliffs called calanques

The Port of Cassis on the French Riviera, with its pretty backdrop of the limestone cliffs called calanques

It may be difficult to imagine taking time away from the idyllic town of Aix-en-Provence, France. However, not far from its leafy boulevards and gurgling fountains, the laidback coastal fishing village of Cassis, located between Marseilles and Bandol, makes for an ideal day trip.

Wally’s mom, affectionately referred to as “The Shirl” had brought and read about the Calanques of Cassis, white limestone cliffs at the water’s edge, in Rick Steves’ Provence & The French Riviera travel guide. So I suppose, in a way, we have Mr. Steves to thank for our excursion.

Limestone from the calanques of Cassis was used to build the Suez Canal as well as the base of the Statue of Liberty.
calanques1

How to Get There

The four of us set off for Cassis and took the train from the Aix-en-Provence TGV railway station to Marseille. At the Gare de Marseille Saint-Charles, we purchased tickets to the Gare de Toulon train station, about 15.5 miles southeast of Marseille.

Once in Toulon, we boarded a bus that twisted and wound its way down a steep hillside until we arrived at the Port of Cassis.

Wally’s dad, Duke, Wally and the infamous Shirl on their boat excursion to see the calanques

Wally’s dad, Duke, Wally and the infamous Shirl on their boat excursion to see the calanques

The Calanques

Chartered boat tours are available for different durations. You can visit the first three in a 45-minute trip, or go as far as all nine in one and a half hours.

We opted for the 45 minute excursion, which included Port-Miou, Port-Pin and d’En-Vau.

The name of our boat was Le Calendal, a small vessel that holds a maximum of 12 people.

On our voyage, we met and struck up a conversation with a charming au pair from Düsseldorf, Germany named Alexandra.

Wally with his new acquaintance, a German au pair

Wally with his new acquaintance, a German au pair

As our boat departed the harbor, our captain, Didier Crespi, pointed out the 14th-century fortress, Château de Cassis, built atop a cliff that juts out into the Mediterranean. Converted into a luxury hotel, the grounds are not open to the public, but should you wish to see them, you can book a junior suite for $350, or opt for the Chloe Suite, with a private terrace overlooking the azure waters of the Cote D'Azur for $690.

We passed the remains of a ruined quarry building on Pointe Cacau near the Calanque of Port-Miou.

The struggle of nature: Water wears away at the cliffs while plant life somehow finds a way to take hold

The struggle of nature: Water wears away at the cliffs while plant life somehow finds a way to take hold

The craggy limestone formations are dotted with pine and juniper trees that have taken root and grow in minimal soil amongst the cracks and crevices.

The remains of a limestone quarry, a popular building material and primary export for the town

The remains of a limestone quarry, a popular building material and primary export for the town

Captain Crespi told us that white limestone was the primary export of Cassis and provided the natural building material used to construct quays in major port cities from Alexandria to Algiers, as well as the channel walls of the Suez Canal, connecting the Mediterranean with the Red Sea. This same stone was even used to create the base for the Statue of Liberty.

You can kayak, hike to a hidden beach, risk your life rock-climbing — or you can just take it all in on a boat excursion

You can kayak, hike to a hidden beach, risk your life rock-climbing — or you can just take it all in on a boat excursion

Le Capitaine dropped anchor in the sheltered crystalline inlet of the Calanque d’En Vau. The sea was a brilliant blue and shimmered like liquid glass. A school of silver-skinned fish paused at the side of our boat as if they were accustomed to our captain’s comings and goings. He threw them some pieces of bread, which they excitedly nibbled at.

On our return to the harbor, we passed a restaurant perched atop the calanques that makes pastis, an anise-flavored spirit and aperitif.

From the water, we could see people relaxing on small private beaches (some of them nude), fishing and hiking. We even saw a rock climber scaling the face of a cliff while we moored.

The landscape was stunning and we all enjoyed our sunny afternoon on the water. –Duke

20 Best Instagram Photos of 2016

You saw, you liked. Here are our best-rated travel photos on Instagram of last year.

 

Looking back, 2016 taught me the importance of staying connected to friends near and far. Seeking new perspectives to overcome hurdles and nurturing the labor of love Wally and I call the Not So Innocents Abroad.

Our hope is to share our experiences of other cities and other cultures. Whether exploring the unusual 161-year-old Dhundiraj Ganpati Mandir wooden Hindu temple in Baroda, India or asking our friends abroad to vocalize how they felt about the polarizing effects of the American election, we’re grateful for the role you’ve played and look forward to welcoming a year filled with optimism and new adventures.

 

Choose Your Own Adventure

As the old adage goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Predicting what makes one image more engaging than another can be difficult to determine and often, like art, is simply subjective.

From amazing destinations that include Cambodia, France, India and Morocco, here’s a look back at our most popular Instagrams of last year.

Follow us on Instagram — and be a part of the action! –Duke

1. If Aix-en-Provence, France doesn’t charm you with its markets, food and architecture, there is no shortage of magnificent elaborately hand-carved entry doors to look at.

2. The beautiful Italianate courtyard outside the Darbar Hall at Laxmi Vilas Palace in Vadodara, India.

3. Deco Darling. Tucked away in the Fès Medina, Morocco, is the beautiful Palais Amani. Originally owned by a prominent Fassi family of merchants, the majority of the residence was rebuilt in the Art Deco style after a landslide badly damaged the 17th century property.

4. The Café St. Regis was one of our favorite spots to enjoy breakfast when we visited Paris, France.

5. The façade of Notre Dame in Paris has many interesting details, but perhaps none as unique as the sculpture in the left portal holding his head. The statue is of St. Denis, said to have picked his head up after being decapitated and walked six miles, while preaching a sermon of repentance the entire way. If it takes me 45 minutes on the treadmill at 6 miles per hour, he would have walked an hour plus!

6. Both covered and open-air, the green metal pavilions from the 1900s form the charming flower market located on Place Louis Lépine in Paris, between the Notre Dame Cathedral and Sainte Chapelle chapel.

7. A view of the magnificent Rajon Ki Baoli stepwell in Delhi, India, built by Daulat Khan during the reign of Sikandar Lodi in 1516. Chambers located behind the arch-shaped niches once provided respite from the heat and a place for patrons to socialize.

8. One of the splendid staircases with its elegant wrought-iron railing inside the 18th century Hotel d’Albertas mansion in Aix-en-Provence, France. Embellishments such as these were a sign of family wealth intended to call out the social status of the owner.

9. Neptune wielding a trident riding on a fish by sculptor André Massoule on the Beaux-Arts Pont Alexandre III in Paris. A marvel of 19th century engineering, this bridge consists of a 20-foot-high single-span steel arch.

10. Musical Chairs. I was awestruck by the hypnotic symmetry of the rows of empty ladder-back chairs awaiting the devout at Saint Suplice in Paris. The ethereal Catholic church, located in the 6th arrondissement, is the second largest in Paris and it was in some movie called The Da Vinci Code. 😜

11. The enormous grooved stump of lime mortar and rubble masonry are all that remains of the unfinished Alai Minar in Delhi. The minaret was intended to rival the Qutb Minar in both size and scale, but was never completed.

12. Part of the Right Bank, this busy square located in Montmartre, Paris is known for its portrait artists and painters. During the Belle Époque, at the beginning of the 20th century, many artists, including Pablo Picasso, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent van Gogh resided and worked here.

13. Fez was founded in 859 CE. The origin of the name is unknown. Some scholars believe it comes from the old Berber name of the Middle Atlas Mountains, Fazaz. Other stories trace the name back to a tale of a golden axe that divided the river of Fez into two halves. In Arabic, a fez is an axe.

14. Built by sculptor Jean-Claude Rambot and situated in the heart of the Mazarin district, the Fountain of the Four Dolphins in Aix supports an obelisk topped with a pineapple. We spent an afternoon here with our sketchbooks pretending we were bohemian artistes.

15. The stunning Angkor Wat temple, the largest religious monument in the world, was built by Khmer king Suryavarman II in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It’s a symbolic representation of Mount Meru, the Mount Olympus of the Hindu faith and the abode of ancient gods. The complex has been in continuous use since it was built.

16. Benched. There is something beautiful in the patina of these benches in Aix Cathedral combined with the well-worn brick floor that has stood the test of time.

17. A Room With a View. Our grand suite at the Udai Bilas Palace in Dungarpur, India looked out onto the tranquil waters of Gaibsagar Lake, where the royal family’s private island temple dedicated to the Lord Shiva floats serenely.

18. Set in Stone. A white marble cenotaph lies at the center of Safdarjung’s tomb in Delhi.

19. Kittens and cats are a common sight among the streets of the Marrakech Medina in Morocco, indifferent to the activity around them. This little guy came to visit while we were sitting having coffee.

20. Louvre is in the air at Paris’ famous museum.